It is fascinating to look at theology from an historical perspective. Good theology has often developed out of conflict and challenge, like the doctrine of the Trinity. Various proposals were made but the final product came out of sound exegesis to give us a result consistent with the whole of Biblical teaching. In scientific terms we might say that this model best accommodated all of the available evidence. The alternatives did not because they were not able due to certain assumptions.
It seems that sometimes the problems with a theological system go deeper. Each system attempts to answer as well as possible all of the questions raised through exegesis. At times the questions are quite difficult. One might challenge many who claim a Calvinistic soteriology on the question of a genuine offer and the responses will vary enough to show that it is a hard question. Likewise one might inquire of the Molinist regarding “proximatel starting point” in exegesis and get a blank stare in return as though the question is not even understood.
The differences in eschatology also vary significantly. The place of physical Israel, the Jewish people, has caused no end of division. On the amillennial side I’ve found two common positions. On the one hand there are many who see the term “Israel” as a reference to the people of faith and relegate the nation to be one among the many. There are others who recognize that the nation may have a temporal place in God’s plan for the ages but nothing spiritual in that plan. Thus the re-establishment of the nation in 1948 may say something about eschatology. Or it may not. Still, the allowance is given for an interpretation which might correct the common amillennial misunderstanding of Romans 9:1-5 and 11:28-29.
Of course the dispensationalist faces some hard questions. The Rapture in particular. Historically it is viewed by many as a voice for the millennial fever of the 17th through 19th centuries. It came as a parallel to the rise of postmillennialism during that same period. The world was viewed as getting better. All sorts of progress was being made. Governments were improving the lot of the masses. The Gospel was going around the world effectively. The Lord, it was thought, must be coming back soon. What is there in His way? Everything was ready, or so it seemed.
Dispensationalism sought to correct some of the mistreatment of the Jewish people and provide for them their proper place in God’s plan. It also sought to participate in the millennial fever of the day. By doing so it gave rise to a particular teaching which excited many, and still does. The Rapture.
Just to note: I am a dispensationalist. I accept that God has a plan for the ages that is laid out in the Bible. This plan is not to be taken allegorically, figuratively, or as finally completed. This plan also involves (1) an evangelistic effort aimed at the Jewish people and (2) the final redemption of all of creation.
Yet as I look at dispensationalism it seems that the 19th and most of the 20th centuries were built around an emotional fever. This redirection of our energies has taken away our long-range perspective on building up the body of Christ in the best possible manner. We have instead focused on the now, on felt need, on immediate conversion, etc. The errors of the revival mentality have been maintained so that believers too often, instead of engaging the Word and the Lord as deeply as possible, spend more time instead repeating the instruction of their pastors and ministers.
Of course not everyone is a seminary-trained instructor and not everyone should be expected to be that type of scholar. That’s not my point. What I am getting at is something a little more general: Churches have been, too often, reduced to something other than places of theological excellence. They are filled with people very capable of deep study and skilled teaching yet are sniffled by the the narrow vision of the local church structure where they fellowship.
When we study the Bible we are always doing theology. We read and understand things in terms of redemption, of plan, of Israel, of creation, of exodus, etc. Christ fulfilled the law. The new heavens and earth fulfill the plan set in place at creation. Marriage fulfills a model for Christ’s relationship with His bride, the church. We cannot avoid it.
We are also doing systematic theology when we study. We see a covenant and a plan. We see a relationship and a fulfillment of that relationship. However we see the big picture we read with that big picture in mind. What we need to do is clarify that big picture for ourselves. To do a better job in both our study and our teaching. Nobody said ministry, even in unpaid positions, was to be easy or light.
There are a number of good choices to be made. We should reject the compromises of late evangelicalism and also reject the narrow vision of the revivalist. The anti-intellectualism of the fundamental and fundamentalist has shown itself inadequate in addressing the world with the gospel. It’s time to consider other options and to question, not the Lord or the Bible, but ourselves and even how we treat our theology. I suspect we have made mistakes without paying full attention.